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The Nuclear Option

Some think it's a solution to global warming, but atomic energy is still plagued with problems of its own.

Over the past year, two of the most hotly contested energy issues of the past half-century have converged on a worldwide scale: global warming and nuclear power. Nuclear reactors generate electricity by splitting atoms, not by burning carbon-based fuel, so the plants themselves don't emit greenhouse gases; this makes them appear to be a good way to curb global warming. China and India are already forging ahead with ambitious plans to expand their fleet of nuclear reactors, and Finland is now building Europe's first new nuclear power plant in 15 years. In the United States, where an order for a new nuclear reactor has not been filled in three decades, Congress has granted billions of dollars in subsidies to the nuclear industry for the construction of a handful of new reactors. But behind the debate lies the stark reality that nuclear power is not likely to be the global warming panacea some might hope for. Thomas Cochran, director of NRDC's nuclear program and member of the Department of Energy's nuclear energy research advisory committee, explains why.

Is nuclear the answer?

NRDC calculated how many nuclear reactors the world would need to build in lieu of new fossil fuel-fired plants to measurably curb the rise in global temperature. It turns out that if we added 700 gigawatts of nuclear capacity -- about twice the current global capacity -- by 2050, and continued to operate these new plants through the end of the century, it would prevent a global temperature increase of only about 0.36 degree Fahrenheit. Fueling these new facilities would require about 15 new uranium enrichment plants and another 14 Yucca Mountain-size geologic repositories to dispose of the spent fuel, which would contain some one million kilograms of plutonium. When separated from the spent fuel, just a few kilograms of this material harbor the explosive potential sufficient to destroy an area the size of lower Manhattan. This hypothetical nuclear-growth scenario is highly unlikely to occur because new nuclear power plants are still uneconomical. But if it did occur, the proliferation and waste problems would likely prove to be intractable.

Does it make economic sense?

A study done by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003 found that electricity produced by a new nuclear power plant in the United States would cost some 60 percent more than energy generated by a coal-fired or natural gas-fired plant. That study assumed moderate natural gas prices of about $4.50 per thousand cubic feet. We've since entered a period of much higher fuel costs -- today's natural gas prices are more than twice that -- a factor that makes nuclear more economical than the study showed. Still, in the United States, nuclear energy is unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to solving global warming unless fossil fuel prices stay as high as they are today and the cost of electricity from fossil fuel-fired power plants is increased by placing a significant limit on carbon emissions -- something the Bush administration and erstwhile nuclear supporters in Congress have, ironically, refused to do.

What about nuclear proliferation?

Perhaps the most serious of all the problems that would be exacerbated by dramatically increasing global nuclear capacity is the threat of nuclear proliferation. Highly enriched uranium and plutonium are the two types of fuel used in commercial nuclear reactors, but they're also the two principal ingredients in nuclear weapons -- and it takes only a few kilograms of these materials to make a nuclear bomb. Gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment technology, which is the preferred method used to enrich uranium for commercial reactor fuel outside the United States (Iran is building a gas-centrifuge facility right now), can easily be modified, or supplemented in small, secret facilities, to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. Moreover, plutonium is a normal by-product of electricity production in conventional reactors. Thus, the same reactors and fuel-processing facilities that are used for energy production can also be used for the manufacture of weapons.

Under current international safeguards, any nation that does not possess nuclear weapons can lawfully acquire nuclear reactors, uranium enrichment plants, and nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, claiming, as do Iran and Japan, that these facilities are solely for peaceful uses. Such nations can also stockpile highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- a risk, since the time it would take to convert the materials into a nuclear weapon can be less than the time required for inspectors to detect the diversion and alert the international community.

Can we manage all the waste?

We need to come up with a safe way to dispose of the highly radioactive spent fuel before we greatly expand existing nuclear power plant capacity. It ranks among the most dangerous materials known; exposure to it causes cancer and birth defects. There is no operational geological repository for spent fuel anywhere in the world. The federal government has spent decades and billions of dollars trying to establish a geologic repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, only to learn that leakage from the facility represents a far greater risk to future generations than was believed when the site was selected. The government's response has been to relax the licensing criteria to ensure that the facility receives an operating license. There has been no work on a second repository even though within a few years we'll have generated more waste than even Yucca Mountain could hold.

Are reactors really safe?

While the risk of a catastrophic core meltdown at a reactor in the United States is considered to be much lower today than it was two decades ago, dangerous precursor events still occur. The next serious nuclear accident is most likely to happen in China, India, or Russia, where reactor safety standards are far less stringent.

Why is everyone else doing it?

Nuclear power is the only energy technology currently in use that requires international safeguards intended to prevent the construction of weapons from the fuel. It is also the only technology that produces spent fuel so dangerous that governments must own and dispose of it. In the United States, the nuclear power industry would not be able to survive without federal insurance against catastrophic accidents. So one is right to wonder why, if there are so many problems with the nuclear industry, other countries are deciding to move ahead with plans to expand their nuclear capacity. The answers vary. In Finland the government wants to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas. In several countries -- most notably France, Russia, and China -- energy supply technologies are selected by federal bureaucracies or state-owned monopolies rather than in free, fair, and open competition. Even in the United States, President Bush and the nuclear industry's supporters in Congress are still trying to tilt the scale in favor of nuclear by offering generous tax credits on future electricity sales from new nuclear power plants, guarantees of federal "cost sharing" during the licensing and construction phases -- subsidies in the billions of dollars -- and federal construction risk insurance.

What are our alternatives?

Our national electricity needs could be met, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent or more, through a combination of increased energy efficiency, wind power, solar power, advanced coal-fired plants with carbon capture and storage, and high-efficiency natural gas turbines. It certainly doesn't make sense to spend tens of billions of federal dollars to subsidize just a few new nuclear plants when we have so many other, more promising options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That course of action will simply drain research and development funds from more efficient and more cost-competitive non-nuclear technologies, thereby slowing achievement of meaningful carbon dioxide reductions.

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OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council